The Bird winged his way down to Nogales the other day to meet with Arizona's only Mexican-born governor, Raul Castro. Sand Land newbies, who know the Grand Canyon State as a reservoir of hatred and discrimination toward anyone brown, may figure this finch finally has gone Froot Loopy. But, you heard The Bird right: Arizona once had a naturalized U.S. citizen as its chief executive, one with the same name as Fidel Castro's brother!
Of course, Castro was and is a Democrat. And when he was elected in 1974, it was the ultimate triumph over a lifetime of experiencing racism and discrimination firsthand, not to mention the black hole of poverty Castro had to pull himself out of as one of 12 children born to Mexican immigrants. His papa worked in a copper smelter in Douglas and died before Castro turned 13. His mom was a midwife and had to raise her brood on her own after that.
You can read all about Castro's struggle in his soon-to-be-published memoir Adversity is My Angel: the Life and Career of Raul Castro, which Castro co-wrote with history professor Jack August. But after perusing an advance copy, The Bird had to meet the soon-to-be-93-year-old in the flesh. See, the sort of anti-Mexican bigotry Castro experienced calls to mind much of what brown folk in Arizona have to endure now. Though during his childhood, with segregation in full force, the prejudice was even more blatant, more in your face.
On the porch of his historic home overlooking hilly Nogales and the border with Mexico, Castro recalled one particularly outrageous incident that occurred when he was quarterback of the football team at Douglas High School. Many team members belonged to an organization that met at the local YMCA, and after the meeting, they all decided to take a swim in the YMCA pool. But when he got to the door, his way was barred by the director of the facility.
"'Castro, you can't go in,'" the ex-governor remembered the man saying.
"'Why not?' I asked."
"'Mexican kids can only go swimming here on Saturday afternoons,'" he said the man told him. "That meant that when the water was dirty, when pool was to be cleaned, that's when Mexican kids could swim. Everyone else could swim the rest of the week."
In his mind, it was another obstacle to overcome. Years later, after he graduated from law school at the University of Arizona, he ended up on the YMCA's board of directors, where he said he was able to get the rules changed. For Castro, it was a lesson: The way to knock down the roadblocks of discrimination is to become part of the establishment.
"In order to [do that], you must be a participant. You must be active. You must be a leader," explained Castro, who went on to become Pima County Attorney, a Superior Court judge, then ambassador to El Salvador and Bolivia before running for governor. "How do you become a leader? You don't become a leader by just doing nothing."
The YMCA incident was hardly the first or the last instance of prejudice Castro endured. As a child, grade schools were segregated by race, and he watched white kids getting bused to their schools while he and his Mexican classmates had to walk four miles to theirs. In middle school, he shared classes with Anglos for the first time. On the playground at recess, Mexican and Anglo kids divided up against each other, playing a game they called "race against race," slugging it out and hurling rocks at each other.
Despite an educational system that generally discouraged Hispanic children from advancing, Castro graduated from high school and dodged a dead-end career in the copper smelter to attend Arizona State Teachers College in Flagstaff, now Northern Arizona University. After matriculating, he discovered no one wanted to hire a teacher of Mexican descent. He drifted, traveling the country by rail as a hobo and boxing for money.
Eventually, he returned to Arizona and went to law school. After he had served as Pima County Attorney, he ran for the Superior Court seat. One of his colleagues, future Democratic Congressman Morris 'Mo' Udall wanted to run for that judgeship, but Castro refused to pull out of the race, so it was Udall who decided not to run.
But being a judge was no guarantee against what we now call racial profiling. One Saturday, as Judge Castro was painting the fence on his small Tucson ranch, where he kept a horse farm, the U.S. Border Patrol rolled up. Castro was dressed in old Levi's and a sombrero, doing the chores his wife had asked him to do. Three guesses where this story is going.
"There were two of them," Castro recalled, with a smile in his voice. "They spoke to me in Spanish, 'Do you have a card [proving he was in the country legally]?' I said [in Spanish], 'No, I don't have a card.'"